After sustaining substantial damage from hail, an Emriates Boeing 777 headed to New York was forced to turn around shortly after takeoff from Milan, Italy, on July 14. It landed safely about 90 minutes later after flying in a holding pattern to burn off fuel.
No one was injured during the flight, but the severe hailstorm — with ice chunks reportedly the size of tennis balls — shattered the cockpit windows and punctured and dented the fuselage.
The Boeing 777-31H had taken off from Malpensa airport and was heading to New York’s JFK airport when it flew into the hail-embedded storm at about 15,000 feet over the surrounding mountains — the Italian and Swiss Alps — according to news reports. Severe thunderstorms in northern Europe were reported at the time.
Reports from Malpensa Airport said that the plane “immediately after take-off from Malpensa entered a hail storm.”
“After about 97 minutes from take-off [the plane] returned to Malpensa,” said the area’s airports association.
As it was a transatlantic flight, the plane had a full tank of fuel. For safety reasons, extra fuel had to be burned off, so the jet flew in a holding pattern for about an hour before landing.
Airport officials said that strong winds continued to cause problems for the flight, which struggled to land before eventually touching down safely after two attempts.
The passengers were moved to a new flight the following day.
Since the pandemic, Emirates Airlines restarted flights to New York in June, and as of July has had daily flights to the United States.
How does hail affect aircraft during a flight?
Flights may be canceled or delayed because storms can damage the plane, especially during a night flight. The way in which hail erupts from the cloud during storms can cause hail to spread in many directions, and the impact of hail at high speeds can be dangerous.
The windshield could be cracked by a hailstorm, and although the damage is mostly cosmetic, as the inner windshield remains intact, this can cause visibility problems for the pilot.
Storms could also damage the radome (the dome protecting radar equipment), but generally do not pose a risk to passengers. The main problems could be an increase in noise level and a risk of damage to the radar antenna.
Hail entering the engine could be a problem for an aircraft in flight and could bend or break the compressor blade. However, this is said to be highly unlikely as the engines are designed to withstand the impact of birds and other objects hitting them at speed.
(Edited by Angie Ivan and Judith Isacoff)
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